"The other chamber had a good ol' boy system. If you said something, you got kicked out. With (the new chamber), everybody is on the same page," said Steve Gardner, owner of Dirt Road Truckers.

NAVARRE — In the unincorporated area of south Santa Rosa County, there's not one, but two chambers of commerce.

That's twice the number of movie theaters (Navarre has none), one more than the number of hotels on the beach (SpringHill Suites is set to open this summer) and half the number of grocery stores (a fourth is under construction).

For 42 years, the Navarre Beach Area Chamber of Commerce (NBACC) has been the champion for businesses and a voice for locals. Over the four decades, it helped rally for a post office and created popular events such as Thursdays in the Park. 

But on Aug. 1, 2016, the NBACC became one of two chambers in the beachside community. That was the day the Greater Navarre Area Chamber of Commerce (GNACC) was registered with the state Divisions of Corporations.

In less than a year, the new chamber has gained more than 50 members, some of whom are former members of the old chamber.

Both chambers want to be an advocate for business and community development. The question is, is there enough of each for both?

An ‘awkward dynamic’

The new chamber was founded following a few controversies, including a defamation lawsuit against the NBACC and its CEO/president, Judy Morehead.

In May 2016, Tony Hughes, the former chairman of the chamber’s Military Affairs Council, sued the chamber and Morehead. According to the complaint filed in Santa Rosa County Circuit Court, Morehead is accused of making false claims about Hughes taking money out of the Military Affairs Council’s bank account.

That July, the chamber formally expelled Hughes from its membership. In the months that followed, six chamber board members left their positions.

Hughes became a charter member of the GNACC. 

The second chamber brings an “awkward dynamic” to the area, Morehead said, but she doesn’t see the two as competitors.

“Competing implies someone will win (or) lose,” she said in an e-mail interview. “The Navarre Beach Area Chamber of Commerce’s goals are simple. We advocate for business, promote community fellowship and work to improve the overall quality of life for the community. It should always be a win/win.”

NBACC has 450 members.

“There were some members that were kept on the records for the sake of numbers,” she said. “Now that we have that behind us, we are seeing a normal cycle of renewals, and our growth rate is on target for an established chamber.”

Battle of the bands

In February, the two chambers each submitted applications to host concert series on the beach. GNACC submitted its application for the 2018 summer season, and a few days later NBACC submitted its application for this summer. Both were approved.

GNACC President/CEO Tony Alexander, who was the past president of NBACC before he resigned in 2015, declined to comment for this story, but told Santa Rosa County commissioners that the concert series wasn't an “us versus them” scenario.

“We’re all eating from a pretty big pie,” he said.

Members of GNACC who talked to the Daily News said they believe two chambers means the community has a choice.

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“It’s nothing personal. They’re both good organizations,” said William Goulet, owner of Navarre Auto Repair and a member of GNACC. “It's like religion ... it's a choice. I still go out to all the restaurants. Judy Morehead is a customer of mine. I don’t hold grudges. We’re all still the same people.”

Goulet was a member of NBACC until about 2014, he guesses. He said the new chamber is a better fit for him. In the future, he’d like to see it focus on fundraising for organizations that support kids and people in need.

Steve Gardner, owner of Dirt Road Truckers and one of the charter members of GNACC, he said he had been a member of the NBACC but was disheartened by the leadership. He's optimistic about the future of the new chamber.

"Navarre needs something that will help businesses, not be a social club," Gardner said. "The other chamber had a good ol' boy system. If you said something, you got kicked out. With (the new chamber), everybody is on the same page."

Competition is healthy because it makes both chambers work hard to gain members, he said.

"Not everybody would be happy driving a Cadillac. Some may want to drive a Ford."

‘It’s like Peyton Place’

Some businesses don't think two chambers is positive for the business community.

When Terry Light opened up her gift shop, Pik-Itz, she joined NBACC. She said having a second chamber does more harm than good.

“It makes us look ridiculous,” she said. “I’m leasing my space and I’ve actually considered moving to Pensacola. ... There’s legitimacy. But I like living in Navarre. If I didn’t live here, I wouldn’t mess with it.”

Lisa Gambill, the owner of Southern Specialty Market, joined NBACC when Alexander was president. She said she credits the chamber for helping promote both her businesses. She also owns a pavers company with her husband.

Gambill said her loyalty to NBACC has caused some issues, and claims a representative of GNACC came to her shop screaming at her in front of customers.

“It’s ‘Peyton Place’,” she said. “I love Tony (Alexander) to pieces, and if it were just him I’d probably consider joining both chambers. I just wish they could sit down and come together.”

Jerry Foster of Keller Williams Reality is a NBACC member with his nonprofit group Pirates of the Panhandle. The tale of the two chambers is a sad one, he said.

“We have one the world’s best sandboxes to play in and we can’t seem to get along.”

Confusion

When the new chamber was formed, Morehead said she was concerned it would “divide and confuse” the community.

It confused at least one business.

Rob Furloni of Northwest Florida Property Inspections said his wife heard about GNACC and thought it was a good idea to join.

“I didn’t know there was another chamber until I already signed up,” he said.

Ted Corcoran, president/CEO of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, said he doesn’t believe any of the local communities could support two chambers.

“There’s just not enough businesses or organizations,” he said.

Although businesses can join more than one chamber, Corcoran said he thinks only a “fractional” number of organizations would overlap memberships. Of the 2,000 memberships in his chamber, only a handful are from outside Fort Walton Beach, he said.

“In this portion of Northwest Florida, each community is so separate,” he said. “Some members may be doing business throughout a county or multiple counties.”

Kristen Loera, president/CEO of the Gulf Breeze Area Chamber of Commerce, said the geographic nature of the area may lead to smaller municipalities starting their own chambers.

“The bones of a chamber of commerce are always going to be the same,” she said. “Where I see chambers stand out is the culture of the chamber or a niche. In Pensacola, there’s two chambers, but Pensacola Beach focuses on events and tourism.”

Santa Rosa County now has six chambers of commerce, including the two in Navarre. Morehead said there will certainly be overlapping memberships among them.

“Some organizations don’t have a choice,” she said. “For example, a government affiliate should not favor one or the other. However, an individual business should always look at the bottom line.”

Bill Andersen, president and chairman of the board for Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, said he thinks two chambers are a “fantastic thing,” which is why the nonprofit belongs to both.

"They're both set up to serve the community, and I thank both chambers for their support," he said. "I’m agnostic about the politics, and frankly, it's none of my business.”